Obesity Accounted for $75 Billion in U.S. Health Care Costs in 2003, Report Finds
Obese U.S. residents accumulated $75 billion in weight-related medical bills in 2003, and about half of those costs were paid for by Medicare and Medicaid, according to a study to be published Friday in Obesity Research, USA Today reports (Hellmich, USA Today, 1/22). For the report, the first to examine the economic impact of obesity at the state level, researchers from the not-for-profit RTI International and the CDC calculated medical costs directly related to obesity based on government health surveys from 1998 to 2000. Medical expenses included drugs, doctor visits and hospitalizations for surgery (Baltimore Sun, 1/22). The analysis did not include indirect costs, such as lost work days. Overall, Medicare and Medicaid paid about $39 billion -- or $175 per taxpayer -- for obesity-related care (USA Today, 1/22). Roughly 5.7% of the nation's health care expenses were obesity-related, about the same percentage as is spent on treatments for the effects of smoking. Obesity-related care made up 6.8% of Medicare costs and 10.6% of Medicaid costs (Wahlberg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/22). States spent an average of about 5% of their medical costs on obesity, with Arizona spending the least at 4% and Alaska spending the most at 6.7%; California had the highest dollar amount in obesity-related medical spending at $7.7 billion (AP/Wall Street Journal, 1/22).
According to the Chicago Tribune, the report comes as state legislatures prepare to consider "scores of bills" on how to address obesity when they reconvene this month. Amy Winterfeld, a senior policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, predicts that states will consider increasing physical and nutrition education requirements, toughening school food standards and limiting selection in school vending machines (Graham, Chicago Tribune, 1/22). The report itself does not recommend specific solutions but "suggests that the government could save money if it did more to prevent obesity," the Orlando Sentinel reports. The percentage of American adults who are obese -- or have a body mass index of 30 or more -- has doubled since 1980 to 27% of the population in 1999, causing an increase in weight-related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, according to the CDC (Suriano, Orlando Sentinel, 1/22).
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said, "Obesity has become a crucial health problem for our nation, and these findings show that the medical costs alone reflect the significance of the challenge" (Hoffman, New York Post, 1/22). CDC Director Julie Gerberding said, "This report is alarming, given that obesity has been shown to promote many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer and gallbladder disease" (Heldt Powell, Boston Herald, 1/22). "The long-term effects of obesity on our nation's health and on our economy should not be underestimated," she added. Shiriki Kumanyika, a University of Pennsylvania epidemiology professor, said that although the public has become aware that obesity is a major health problem, "the serious policy making" has not yet started (Knight Ridder/Tribune News/Baltimore Sun, 1/22). Eric Finkelstein, a health economist with RTI and the study's lead author, said, "We have a lot of taxpayers financing the costs of overweight and obesity for those in public sector health plans. That provides justification for governments to find cost-effective strategies to reduce the burdens of obesity." Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, added that "obesity should be treated and prevented more aggressively through public health programs to encourage health diets and exercise," the AP/Detroit News reports (Niesse, AP/Detroit News, 1/22). Finkelstein also cautioned that the $75 billion figure may be conservative, since people tend to underreport their weight in surveys (AP/Wall Street Journal, 1/22). He added, "If obesity goes up, these costs are going to continue to go up" (USA Today, 1/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.